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Filisur: On the path of the Glacier Express

We’re on the Glacier express, but only for approximately one hour, that’s all we can afford. A small section of the much longer complete journey from Zermatt to St. Moritz. It may be short, but it is spectacular nonetheless. This section of the journey is particularly impressive.

The train is wizzing along by the river, bright blue and dazzling, it attracts our attention which ever way we look. Huge mountains surround us, churches and castles perched atop hills break up the jagged snow capped peaks. Cute alpine houses occasionally dot the lower slopes of the valley.

I’m taking a lot of photos through the window, they will be blurry, out of focus and certainly contain window stains, but I just can’t help myself. The Glacier Express is magical. The train diverges east and approaches a canyon, the terrain growing wilder and wilder. It heads directly towards the peaks and as they loom over us the canyon narrows and we shoot in to a dark tunnel carved from the mountain its self.

The next 30 minutes or so are mostly spent in tunnels, the train coming out for a breath of air every now and then. When it does, we notice how high we are and how little space there is between us and the edge. Far down below the river thrashes around, carving its path through the gorge.

The canyon begins to widen as the river rises up to meet us, we’ve gained a few hundred metres elevation now. The valley floor flattens out and we pass some small villages. There is no sign of snow on the valley floor which is good news to us as we’re almost at our destination.

The Glacier Express meanders around the valley floor before hugging to the left side where it slowly rises up to Filisur, a small understated alpine village. The train station is situated above the town on the slopes of the mountain. The section of track we came to see, the Landwasser Viaduct is right before us now.

The train’s brakes screech as it comes to an almost standstill, it can’t be going more than 10 kilometres an hour now. Over the bridge we roll, it’s so thin you can’t see the sides, it feels as if we are gliding through the air. Far down below, some hundred metres the glacial river crosses under the bridge. In the next second we plunge directly into the cliff face from which the bridge protrudes.

Sehr, sehr kalt

A minute later at the train pulls in to Filisur train station where we disembark. We’re the only people getting off here. It’s pretty, nicer than we imagined. Consulting Google maps we find out it’s actually quite a long distance to the campsite. We’re a bit knackered at this point. It’s been quite a long day. Hitchhiking from St. Gallen to Chur, exploring Chur, the excitement of the Glacier express and now we have to lug our 75KG rucksacks down the mountain and across the river, through the fields and to the campsite.

It’s a right roundabout way and it seems there is only one bridge across the river to the campsite which is at the other end of town. We walk through the village centre and it’s cute as hell. Ridiculously old buildings. There is even a library here! Nothing is open though, it’s completely dead. There will be nothing to do here in the evenings at all.

We finally get to the campsite, Camping Islas (which is located here, website here for those interested) and chuck our rucksacks on the floor while we wait for management to check us in. A stout woman with short hair appears behind the bar. Caroline can barely understand her but assumes its German that she’s speaking. We ask for a pitch for our tent. The woman resolutely shakes her head. Too cold, she says. We disagree. We’ve been in colder weather. She shakes her head again and asks the dudes at the bar for the estimated temperature tonight. Minus 3. Sehr, sehr kalt, she says, as if we wouldn’t understand how cold feels.

Caroline explains about our thermo sleeping bags. That we’ve been in colder weather. But… sehr, sehr kalt, the woman says, her eyes widening. We’ll be fine. Finally, we convince her. Not 100% though – As she shows us to our pitch, she opens the door to the trailer next to it. If it gets too cold, you go sleep in here! And then she disappears, leaving us to wonder: Did she care about us, or did she just not want to deal with our frozen bodies?

Not so scenic campsite views

This is one of the campsites we have been most excited for. The pictures on the website are incredible and it looks like the campsite has amazing views over the valley. Well it turns out it doesn’t. At all. The images are just from the surrounding landscapes. The campsite is nestled in the bottom of the valley surrounded by trees with no views what so ever, in actual fact we are squashed in between an ugly ass caravan, another ugly ass caravan and a thick wall of trees blocking the view to the river. Quite annoying. Our favourite campsite is still the first one we pitched at!

We pitch our tent and unpack our stuff, the day is already coming to an end. There is one thing to celebrate about this campsite though, it turns out that they have a pub, and it is open. After we go for a quick explore that is most certainly what we will be doing. Drinking beer. Only because it is far too cold to be outside. Still, better than the time we couldn’t even buy any beer.

Train nerds Glacier Express hike

Before we retire to the pub we decide to go check out the awesome bridge and take some nerdy train photos of the Glacier Express. It is about 2.1 kilometres from the campsite. Maps.me says it’s a 40 minute walk. There is a trail which leads out the back of the campsite towards the river where it crosses and goes through some fields until it joins another river which you walk down for about 10 minutes. The walk is actually much more interesting than we thought it would be with some board walks and ladders.

The last 10 minutes of the hike are strenuous as the path steeply rises through the forest where it passed under another small train bridge. On the other side it again steeply rises above the train tracks where you walk parallel to it for a few minutes until you drop down to the observation deck with the full view of the bridge and tunnel.

The sun has already set and it is beginning to get dark. That’s not a problem though because I have researched exactly when the trains arrive at Filisur train station which means they will be passing over the bridge just before their arrival time.

If anyone is interested, at the time of writing, the Glacier Express trains arrive at Filisur on the hour from Chur. So if you are at the observation deck 15 minutes before that you will most definitely spot the train. Immediately after, another train will be going the reverse route, departing Filisur at 1 minute past the hour. So you will also catch that. It seems direct trains are departing until 8PM. Do check before you visit on the Swiss train website and put the start and destination as Chur & Filisur or vice versa.

If you enjoy cute mountain trains, check out our articles about the famous Schafbergbahn in Austria and the Pinzgauer Lokalbahn.

It gets pretty dark very quickly so after taking some long exposure photos we scramble back down the trail and back to the campsite where we waltz straight in to the burning warm pub and enjoy a few beers.

To Davos, the ugliest town in Switzerland

The night was cold, we will give the poor campsite lady that. To be honest though we weren’t really that worried about the night, no snow was forecast, temperature not below zero (at least on the forecast anyway). But it was cold. In fact, my feet are frozen. I can’t feel my toes. I change my socks and put my shoes on and start pacing around the campsite hoping they will thaw out, it’s quite uncomfortable. It’s also pretty cold and grim looking today.

Our plan today is to go to Davos. It turns out with our campsite pitch, we get a free train ride to Davos, so we figure what the hell, why not. A free ride on the Glacier Express is not to be missed and Davos is quite famous, it must be nice. The train leaves soon and it’s quite a walk to the station so we save time by brushing our teeth on the walk up and stuffing our toothbrushes in our rucksacks afterwards. The walk up to the train station warms us up and finally my feet defrost.

We miss the train. Luckily the train station is quite cute and has a nice gift shop and a cafe, so we grab a coffee and buy some cute art deco postcards. When we finally get on the next train, it is nice and empty so I ride with my head hanging out the window like a dog for the majority of it. Snowy mountains all around, beautiful nature everywhere.

No really, it’s super ugly

The journey to Davos takes around 30 minutes, and when we get off we look around thinking where the hell are we. It’s grey and ugly. Concrete everywhere. It’s not the ugliest place in the world but it’s certainly the ugliest place in Switzerland. It looks like a bad relic of history, a communist hell in Switzerland. Maybe we’re biased, the importance of Davos because of the World Economic Forum has soured us. It’s a rich people’s playground here and we don’t fit in. Go to St. Gallen instead, it’s beautiful, or Chur – gorgeous too.

We’re not quite sure what to do here, we didn’t really plan ahead. We consult google but nothing much interesting comes up, so we decide to go for a walk around town, Swiss towns so far have been pretty enjoyable to walk around and appreciate. Well, not this one. It’s ugly and it doesn’t get any prettier. After 10 minutes of aimlessly walking around we decide to go back to the train station.

Plan B

We consult the map and decide on a bit of a hike. We can take the train half way back to Filisur. From there we can hike back along the Glacier Express route. There is a hiking trail through the gorge with lots of cool things to check out, waterfalls, train bridges and a special section of track that emerges from a tunnel to cross a waterfall only to shoot back in to a tunnel on the other side. We take the train to Davos Monstein.

Hiking the Glacier Express

The train station is tiny, a little wooden shack. A very cute one though! It immediately feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere (aside from the road). The valley is much more narrow here, it’s freezing cold and raining, but it’s already beautiful. The trek is about 5 kilometres long and should take a few hours to get back to Filisur, we’ve got plenty of time.

The trail starts directly at the train station and heads towards the gorge. The road veers off to the right into a tunnel and disappears until we arrive back in Filisur. The trail and the train track follow the weaving river deeper in to the gorge.

The trail at this point is named Zügenschlucht (Zügen gorge). There is even a mining museum here, but it’s not open right now. The path is very wide and it is labeled as a mobility path. Therefore the path can probably be accessed by wheelchair users, but do check first, we’re not entirely sure.

The trail is really interesting with beautiful views of the valley and river. There are numerous bridges and tunnels and also information stations dotted around. For more hiking adventures checkout our 3 day trekking adventure in the Karwendel Alps: part 1, part 2 & part 3.

If lord of the rings did trains

The coolest section is the Bärentritt. A tiny bridge over a waterfall in the middle of two tunnels. Passengers on the Glacier Express see daylight for a split second as the train shoots over the waterfall. It’s not a small waterfall either at 30 metres high. The trains pass every half hour so you have a pretty high chance of catching it if you are patient. There is nice look out platform to watch from.

By Kabelleger / David Gubler – Own work, also available at https://bahnbilder.ch/picture/23282, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50735601

The path twists around in to the creek where it crosses the river. Here is another pretty cool perspective to catch the train crossing the waterfall from.

From here the path heads up steeply through the forest where after a short while you get magnificent views back down in the canyon. Waterfalls and rapids everywhere, the river is raging on with massive power.

Wiesenerviadukt

We come to another old bridge, this one looks to be an old road, probably used before the tunnel was built. There is also a train station here. In the middle of the canyon! Nothing is too much for the Swiss when it comes to transport engineering. There is seemingly nothing else around that this train station could possibly be serving. We drop down to the train station, crossing the rails and continue on the path.

The next point of interest is the massive Wiesenerviadukt. A huge train bridge which crosses the canyon. This one is slightly unique because we have to cross it too. The path is bolted on to the side of the bridge. Not terrifying at all. We stand, admiring and bracing ourselves for the crossing when a train rattles past us and the whole bridge rumbles and shakes. We are inches away from the sparks flying off the grinding train wheels.

The bridge is a mammoth structure, 90 metres high and 200 metres long, one of the largest masonry bridges in Switzerland. Walking across it is actually terrifying, it is a metal grate which you can see through and there is barely anything supporting it. Needless to say we hurry across it hoping the Glacier Express does not thunder by, rattling the bridge in the process and sending us tumbling to the canyon floor.

Conductor of the Glacier Express

Just after the bridge there is an old school signal tower, they were used to signal to trains whether or not they could pass. This one is particularly famous and is featured in the german wikipedia article about this particular type of signal. Of course I had to climb and sit on it. I am now the conductor of the Glacier Express. Hell yeah.

After crossing the bridge the path climbs to the very top of the valley through beautiful forests. We are not following the river anymore and we have lost all sense of orientation. There are two tracks we can take now, one which heads back down to the bottom of the valley and underneath the Landwasser Viaduct. The second goes a little higher and then climbs up the slopes of the mountain over Filisur to some old castle ruins. From the castle we can stroll back down to Filisur. We decide to go via the castle, after all we wanted to visit it anyway and we don’t really have any more time to visit it.

The king and queen of the valley

The views from the castle over the valley are stunning, the sun is trying so hard to poke through the rainy clouds for the last hour of the day, soft warm light fills up the valley and we sit on the castle walls enjoying the view for a while. There’s not much left of the castle, but what is left, is all ours. We are the kings and queens of this valley. In fact, we are pretty sure we didn’t see another person all day long.

Again there are two routes down from here – a steep one with a warning and a not steep one. How steep can it be? Steep. That’s how steep. The path winds down in front of the castle and immediately there is some cast iron ladder cemented in to the rock. Ok this is fine. We keep on. The path steepens more and there are sheer drops. We cross a ridge to another rocky outcrop, there are metal cables to hold on to. I slip and snag my hand on the cable, blood starts pouring from my hand. I try to conceal it from Caroline in an effort to act like it was not necessarily a bad idea to pick this route.

The path zig zags down the mountain, steep as ever, we both slip and slide a few times, grabbing each other to stop us falling. It definitely wasn’t the best idea, but it was pretty fun I think to myself at the bottom. I keep that thought to myself.

A relaxing pint

We head back to the campsite having convinced ourselves that we deserve a pint today. The thought of the warm bar is very comforting, we are cold, wet and pretty knackered.

Just before we get to the campsite we say hello to our cow mates. The whole field of cows come over to greet, all surrounding the electric fence but not touching it. A piece of electric string separates me and thirty cows all staring at me, lined in a semi circle. It’s pretty hilarious.

It turns out the bar is closed on Sunday. We’re gutted. Caroline retreats to the tent and I head off on one last quest to photograph the Landwasser Viaduct and the Glacier Express again. Tomorrow we are leaving Filisur for Lucerne.

The night is very, very cold. And long. Cold and long. We think about getting in the caravan, however decide not too because we’re not sissies but most of all because we’re not sure if the campsite lady will charge us for it and we can’t be arsed with that.

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

Train and car are your best bet. Also hitchhiking – so far we have found Switzerland to be pretty great when it comes to getting a ride. I don’t think we’ve waited longer than an hour for a ride here. Everyone is very friendly!

Like in our previous article about Chur we recommend riding the train because it is such an authentic Swiss experience. The views are incredible and the engineering and infrastructure are just mind boggling. Check the train timetable here. They are expensive, but let’s face it, they are also better in every imaginable way than most countries.

Things to do in Filisur

  • Visit the Landwasser viaduct
  • Visit Filisur castle ruins for beautiful views over the valley
  • Hike the alongside the Glacier Express railway through the Zügenschlucht (Zügen gorge)
  • Visit the Wiesener viaduct – one of the largest stone arch bridges in Switzeland
  • Marvel at the Bärentritt waterfall/tunnel/bridge train
  • Visit the Brusio spiral viaduct – well the name says it all. Google it.
  • Visit lake Davos

There is also a shit load of hiking and skiing that you can do!

Accommodation

Do stay at the campsite if it’s warmer than when we visited. It will be much more pleasant. You can check the prices and facilities on their website. As ever with camping (if camping offseason) we recommend getting a camping card. It has saved us a lot of money!

If you are not up to camping then check below for a few deals on hotels!

Booking.com

Pro Tip

If you stay at the campsite you actually get a nice surprise where you can ride the trains around for free (in the local vicinity) you can get to Davos for free, and another location we can’t quite remember, but didn’t have time to check out.

We don’t recommend visiting Davos its self, but the surrounding lake and mountains are nice. You can also use the train to get to the start of the hike we did and hike back through the gorge to Filisur.

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